Why it’s best to face up to your regrets
THE OLD ADVICE WAS TO LET THEM GO, BUT DEALING WITH REGRETS HELPS YOU MOVE ON. BY Lucy Taylor
Until recently, I had a “non je ne regrette rien” attitude to life. Yes, I’d taken risks and made mistakes.
But instead of dwelling on them, I had held onto the belief that it’s pointless to cry over spilt milk.
But in the past few months, I’ve become fixated with the past: things I’ve done and wish I hadn’t, things I haven’t done but wish I had. They range from what is apparently people’s most common regret – I wish I’d chosen a different career path – to the more specific.
I wish I hadn’t quit my secure teaching job for the competitive world of journalism. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time worrying about trivial things. I wondered whether it was my first pregnancy, with its high levels of hormones, that was doing something to my brain.
Then again, perhaps this fixation on “what if” is a symptom of ageing. I’m 39 and an existential crisis around the 40-year mark is not unusual.
I’ve read that, until 40, most people assume possibility is unlimited. If a career doesn’t work out, there’s time to retrain for another. If a relationship ends, another will come along.
But at 40ish, big dreams seem a bit less achievable. So is it better to deny the existence of regrets or is it healthier to face up to them?
PATHS NOT TAKEN
In the past, the advice was to get over regrets and move on. But psychologists have found that our self-perceptions are largely determined by how we feel about the past and what we expect for our future. Studies have shown that ruminating on paths not taken is emotionally corrosive, but also that acknowledging regrets, though painful, can serve an important purpose.
Caroline Adams Miller, a performance coach and co-author of Creating Your Best Life (Sterling), says as one ages, it is normal for regrets to multiply. The important thing is whether a person uses their regrets to their advantage or ends up being consumed by them.
“We begin to create regrets around the age of 19 or 20, according to the research,” she says. “Because this is when we begin to choose things like professions and life partners.
“Making one choice means we could be giving up other options. We accrue regrets as we age, but people handle them in different ways. If you pile up regrets about roads not taken, and you do nothing about it, you will have less wellbeing than if you choose to alter your life.”
Experts believe avoiding regrets can result in carrying them as destructive baggage and “acting out” – having an affair, for instance.
LOOK BACK HONESTLY
Insisting you have no regrets can be a form of denial and a defence mechanism – almost as if it is too frightening to look back with honesty. It was easier to tell myself everything happens for a reason than to take responsibility for my life.
Adams Miller advises clients to assess their regrets and decide to live with them and “make meaning” of the choices or use them to set goals.
Pauline Kent, a PR director, says she has spoken to many women who regret the time they haven’t spent with their children.
The mother of four says: “I had children in my 30s because I wanted a career. Now I think I should downsize, worry less and enjoy more.”
In my own life, it was by considering “regrets in advance” last year that I made changes.
Although I was relatively happy single, I fast-forwarded to my mid-40s. I asked myself whether I would regret not trying to settle down with a good man (rather than continuing to wait for Mr Perfect) and have children.
The answer was a resounding yes. It wasn’t quite the fairytale I had imagined, but despite those little regrets I mentioned earlier, I do count my blessings more than I ever did before.
If I hadn’t thought about “possible future regrets in advance”, I’d probably still be waiting for fate to transform my life for me.
Facing up to regrets is painful. But the sooner they’re acknowledged, the sooner you can make peace with them and try to live without them.